Sessions on Silverstein, 'Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, and Nation'

Paul A. Silverstein
Jennifer Sessions

Paul A. Silverstein. Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, and Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. x + 298 pp. $23.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-21712-7; $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-34451-9.

Reviewed by Jennifer Sessions (Department of History, University of Iowa) Published on H-Africa (December, 2006)

Is Paris Burning?

If, in 1988, historian Gérard Noiriel could open his magisterial study of immigration in modern France with the observation that immigration was a "non-lieu de mémoire" (non-site of memory) in French history, the same can no longer be said today.[1] With the growth of the xenophobic far-right Front National party and the rise of immigration as a political issue in France over the last two decades, immigration, especially from the former French colonial empire, has captured the attention of scholars across the human and social sciences. The central theme of much of this scholarship has been the tension between the secular universalism of French republican ideology and the ethno-religious particularity of colonial and postcolonial immigrants, especially Muslims from former French colonies in the Maghreb.[2] Paul Silverstein's new study of Algerian immigrant subjectivities in contemporary France shares this preoccupation.

Drawing on a wide range of printed materials and ethnographic fieldwork carried out in and around Paris in the mid-1990s, Silverstein sets out to explore how Franco-Algerian identities have been constructed, contested, and experienced from the French conquest of Algeria in the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Whereas historians of postcolonial immigration in France have primarily focused on cultural racism and exclusionary citizenship policies, the anthropologist Silverstein is interested in immigration not only as an artifact of French colonialism, but also as a window onto broader social-scientific questions about the relationship between the local and the global in the postcolonial era. In answering these questions, he seeks to intervene in a series of anthropological debates enumerated in the introduction: coloniality and postcoloniality, nation and infranation, transnational social formations, and urban anthropology.

"Transpolitics" is the term that Silverstein uses to describe the ways in which questions of postcolonial immigration simultaneously cross national boundaries and transcend formal state and political institutions. Hence the title, Algeria in France, which encapsulates the book's argument that Algerian immigrants' subjectivities are forged through "the processes of collusion and contention, of appropriation and transformation, that link Algeria and France--Algerians and Franco-Algerians" across the Mediterranean (p. 7). This thesis departs in subtle but important ways from earlier sociological work on the "divided lives" of immigrants in France, and from the concepts of "hybridity," "creolization," and "métissage" that have gained currency in postcolonial studies over the last decade.[3] Unlike postcolonial theorists and scholars, who see the creative mixing of cultures as evidence of resistance by the colonized and postcolonial non-West against hegemonic Western culture, Silverstein defines "transpolitics" instead as a tactical tacking back and forth between France and Algeria on the part of Franco-Algerians. He sees the relationship between the French nation and Algerian immigrants, between France and Algeria, not as an example of cultural hybridization, but as a dialectical relationship through which the two countries form a single space in which Franco-Algerians construct their social, cultural and political identities.

The author, like many of the postcolonial globalization theorists he cites, may overestimate the uniqueness of the postcolonial moment's challenges to the nation-state, and his use of "transpolitics" sometimes risks reifying the very colonial binaries he claims to challenge.[4] But in grafting globalization theory's interest in the "transnational" with cultural studies' search for the political in forms like rap music, graffiti, and sports, "transpolitics" offers a dynamic, alternative to the vision of global "flows" of people, ideas, and goods celebrated by postcolonial critics like Arjun Appadurai.[5]

Eschewing the ethnographer's community study format, Silverstein has organized his book into thematic chapters which highlight citizenship, ethnicity, locality, religion, and generation as the key categories of Franco-Algerian identity. The first three chapters survey citizenship law in France since the French Revolution, colonial ethnographers' invention of "Berber" or "Kabyle" ethnicity in the nineteenth century, and the organization of domestic and urban space in Algeria and Paris from the 1850s to the present. Although much of this ground is well explored, and despite a certain collapsing of temporal distinctions between colonial and postcolonial discourses, these chapters highlight important continuities and parallels between the French state's management of racial difference in the Algerian colony and its treatment of subnational minorities at home.[6]

It is in the second half of the book that the author begins to draw more heavily on the voices of his Franco-Algerian informants in order to explore the cultural practices implied in the concept of transpolitics. Chapter 4's consideration of sports as a form of religious bodily practice yields a fascinating discussion of the convergence of global capitalism, radical Islam, and gender in personal and public attitudes towards the multiracial national football team captained by the Franco-Algerian star, Zinédine Zidane, in the 1990s. Those who followed news reports of the rioting in French suburban housing projects in November 2005 and of the Zidane-led team's fairytale dance into the final game of the 2006 World Cup tournament will be struck by the ongoing pertinence of the connections Silverstein draws here.

Chapters 5 and 6 trace important shifts between the cultural practices and political attitudes of second- and third-generation Franco-Algerians. Drawing on interviews with Berber cultural activists and examples of Franco-Algerian literature, Silverstein directs well-deserved attention to the differences between the second, Beur generation's struggles with cultural assimilation and their younger brothers' turn away from the national and towards the ultra-local ("crews" based in individual housing projects) and the transnational (Berber and Islamic social movements). The final chapter sketches intriguing links between Franco-Algerian ethnic and religious movements, and efforts by other cultural minorities in France to gain from the European Union recognition that is denied them by the French state.

Throughout, the author raises intriguing questions about the ways that Franco-Algerians relate to both France and Algeria. The embrace of Franco-Algeria football players in youth culture and the appropriation of supranational institutions by subnational groups explored in the last chapter are both fascinating examples of the sorts of challenges to the nation-state that the book seeks to highlight. The book's focus on big themes, however, often leaves the reader wishing for more attention to the author's empirical data. The kind of close reading of lyrics and performances that made Silverstein's earlier work on French rap so compelling, for example, is largely missing here.[7] In the first half of the book, the emphasis on interpretation may leave readers unfamiliar with the histories of France and Algeria in the dark about basic elements of the historical narrative. Similarly, brief glimpses in the last chapter of the alliances forged by Berber cultural associations with Catalan, Breton, and Occitan groups only hint at a rich body of research that an old-fashioned community study might have more effectively exploited.

The book's conclusion, that efforts by the French state to efface Algerians' ethnic, racial and religious differences ultimately reinforce them, that "the ongoing process of French national construction is predicated as much on the production as on the erasure of infranational differences" (p. 10), is indicative of its ultimately Franco-centric focus. This is, perhaps, not surprising--Algeria in France is, after all, one of the first entries in Indiana University Press's new "New Anthropologies of Europe" series--but it is disappointing in light of the promise held out by the framing concept of "transpolitics." Algeria itself figures in Silverstein's analysis primarily as an absence, a referent whose meaning is defined from within French politics and society. Algeria's place in immigrant subjectivities is further obscured by the author's tendency to conflate the Berber cultural associations he studied with Algerian immigrants as a whole, and to discuss the Franco-Algerian experience in isolation from that of other immigrant groups, whether from different former French colonies or (as is increasingly the case) from Central and Eastern Europe. Even so, with the recent opening of Algeria to foreign researchers, Silverstein's work raises critical new questions for scholars not just of colonial France, but of the Maghreb as well. For a field that has tended to highlight migration primarily as a tactical response to the dislocations of French colonial rule, this is an important call that diaspora should become as important a theme in North African history as it has been in that of sub-Saharan Africa.[8]


[1]. Le Creuset français: histoire de l'immigration XIXe-XXe siècles (Paris: Seuil, 1988), 14.

[2]. Maxim Silverman, Deconstructing the Nation: Immigration, Racism and Citizenship in Modern France (London: Routledge, 1992); Alec Hargreaves, Immigration, Race and Ethnicity in Contemporary France (London: Routledge, 1995); David Beriss, Black Skins, French Voices: Caribbean Ethnicity and Activism in Urban France (Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 2004); Gary Wilder, The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism between the Two World Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[3]. Albert Nicollet, Femmes d'Afrique noire en France: la vie partagée (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1992); Homi Babha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994); Ulf Hannerz, Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992); Chris Bongie, Islands and Exiles: The Creole Identities of Post/Colonial Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998); Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (London: Routledge, 1995).

[4]. Frederick Cooper is only the most recent historian to point out not only that reports of the nation-state's demise have been vastly exaggerated, but that its hegemonic power, even at the height of Europe's nationalist, imperialist nineteenth-century, has similarly been overestimated. Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), esp. chapters 4-5.

[5]. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

[6]. Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992); Patricia Lorcin, Imperial Identities: Stereotyping, Prejudice and Race in Colonial Algeria (London: I.B. Tauris, 1995); Zeynep Celik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers Under French Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Neil MacMaster, Colonial Migrants and Racism: Algerians in France, 1900-62 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997), esp. chapter 5; Tyler Stovall, "From Red Belt to Black Belt: Race, Class, and Urban Marginality in Twentieth-Century Paris," in The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France, ed. Sue Peabody and Tyler Stovall (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

[7]. "'Why Are We Waiting to Start the Fire?': French Gangsta Rap and the Critique of State Capitalism," in Alain-Philippe Durand, Black, blanc, beur: Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture in the Francophone World (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002), 45-67.

[8]. On the increasing accessibility of Algeria to researchers, see Benjamin Brower, review of Nabila Oulebsir, Les usages du patrimoine: monuments, musées et politique coloniale en Algérie (1830-1930), H-France Review 6, no. 67 (June 2006),; Julia Clancy-Smith, Rebel and Saint: Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters (Algeria and Tunisia, 1800-1904) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Kamel Kateb and Benjamin Stora, Européens, 'indigènes' et juifs en Algérie (1830-1962) (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001).

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Citation: Jennifer Sessions. Review of Silverstein, Paul A., Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, and Nation. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. December, 2006. URL:

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